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Environment

US Democrats call for action on climate change

Environmentalists in the US have celebrated the return of Barack Obama to the Oval Office, calling on him to make climate change a priority during his second term. But a divided Congress could hamper new efforts.

As the US seeks to become more energy independent through the expansion of gas and oil extraction at home, environmental activists are hoping that President Obama will use the political security afforded him by a second term to more squarely confront environmental issues like climate change, particularly in the aftermath of the devastating Hurricane Sandy.

Politicians, celebrities and activists jammed the dance floor at the Newseum in Washington D.C. on Sunday night for the Green Inaugural Ball. The building is partially constructed from recycled material and boasts energy-saving technology, making it the obvious choice for a party to celebrate green challenges ahead as Obama returns to office.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: Vice-President of the United States Joseph R. Biden speaks at the 2013 Green Inaugural Ball at NEWSEUM on January 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images)

US Vice President Joe Biden promised a greener government

They were delighted when US Vice President Joe Biden made a surprise appearance. He took the stage and assured the crowd that the US government was serious about tackling climate change.

"The American public has awakened," he said. "There is global warming. There is science back in the White House and with your help we're going to get done what we need to get done."

Building on success

The guests took the opportunity to look back over the past four years and assess Obama's environmental record. They acknowledged that he managed to improve fuel efficiency standards and reduce mercury and carbon emissions from power plants. He also made good on some of his commitments to support the expansion of renewable energy. His 2009 economic-stimulus plan set aside $90 billion dollars (67.5 billion euros) for clean energy investment and the creation of thousands of jobs in green industries.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: (AFP OUT) U.S. President Barack Obama, with First Lady Michelle Obama, delivers remarks at the Inaugural Reception at the National Building Museum on January 20, 2013 in Washington, D.C. Obama defeated Republican candidate Mitt Romney on Election Day 06 November 2012 to be re-elected for a second term. (Photo by Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images)

At his inauguration speech, Obama said failure to act on climate change would be a betrayal of future generations

And the commitment to the expansion of renewables looks set to continue. As Obama kicked-off his second term, Congress extended a wind tax credit to support the growth of the wind power sector.

"The President has already made very strong progress on fuel efficiency standards that have allowed Americans to go longer on a tank of gas," said Jeff Gohringer of the League of Conservation Voters, a green advocacy group. "That is the biggest thing this country has ever done on climate change."

Weak on climate change

While many at the event were optimistic about the future of renewable energy under Obama, they agreed that the largest stain on his green record was his failure to take effective action on climate change. They were pessimistic about how things would develop over the next four years, because he may not be able to find common ground with the Republican leaders in the US Congress.

"[Obama] needs to do a lot more in the second four years," Chuck Savitt of green publisher Island Press told DW in an interview. "He worked hard, and he was up against some difficult circumstances, and he took on climate change second as opposed to first."

His comments were echoed by Elizabeth Esty, a Democrat politician who has been elected to Congress for the first time. "I would love to see Congress join with the President and seriously address climate change," she said. "We need to lead the rest of the world."

Fracking divide

Fracking was another major point of contention. This involves using explosives to create tiny fissures deep in the ground. The area is then blasted with sand, water and chemicals to release gas or oil locked in the rock. This technique has ushered in a natural gas boom in the US, but is highly controversial. Many communities across the country have opposed it, because they say it could contaminate their drinking water and destabilize the ground.

FILE- In this Wednesday, April 15, 2009, file photo, an unidentified worker steps through the maze of hoses being used at a remote fracking site being run by Halliburton for natural-gas producer Williams in Rulison, Colo. The director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, David Neslin, said Monday, Dec. 5, 2011, that requiring drilling companies to publicly disclose what chemicals they use in hydraulic fracturing is only one tool for protecting public health and the environment. The comment was made during a hearing regarding a proposal to require public disclosures of fracking fluids that aren't trade secrets. More than 100 people packed the hearing. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Fracking may offer the US energy independence, but environmentalists want more research

"Fracking is a new technology and needs to be properly regulated," said Larry Schweiger of the National Wildlife Federation. "It's got to pass on clean water and safe drinking water standards."

But Obama’s administration may be ready to tackle this issue. Just last week, the US Interior Department announced plans to revise rules on the use of hydraulic fracturing to drill for oil and gas on public lands. The new regulations may put anti-fracking groups at ease, as they will likely require better reporting on chemical use, tougher regulations on methane emissions and improved management of wastewater drilling.

Post-Sandy rethink

But despite the pounding music and colorful buffet at the green ball, some revelers wondered if Obama's action on climate change now will be able to prevent disasters in the future. This is a common thought in communities across the US at the moment, as the country repairs the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, which battered the east coast in late October.

11 Der Sturm hinterliess Chaos und Verwuestung. Der Wiederaufbau wird Monate oder Jahre dauern. Bild von Miodrag Soric, 19.11.2012

US voters increasingly believe climate change was a factor in Hurricane Sandy

"Hurricane Sandy was a very powerful warning to everybody that we had a choice between two candidates and their climate policies," said Schweiger of the NWF. " [Republican presidential candidate Mitt] Romney would have done nothing on climate. Obama said he would do everything to change it."

The Green Ball was like a final hurrah - a night of celebration before the activists, researchers, politicians and lobbyists in attendance start work. And the road is long. The US is the world's second largest emitter of carbon dioxide, after China. Gohringer from the League of Conservation Voters said he has his eye on the White House.

"We're going to be looking for what the President can do with his powers," he said as the revelers enjoyed a final fling on the green dance floor.

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